Sub-theme 50: Activity Theory and Organizations

Yrjö Engeström
University of Helsinki, Finland
Zlatko Bodrožić
University of Belgrade, Serbia
Anu Kajamaa
University of Helsinki, Finland

Call for Papers

Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), rooted in the legacy of Vygotsky, Leont'ev and Luria, is a multidisciplinary theory, which has gained increasing popularity and relevance among researchers in the field of organization studies (Adler, 2005; Blackler, 2009). CHAT is inherently a dialectical theory and thus a relevant approach for crossing boundaries and bridging of different systems and worldviews. CHAT provides analytical, conceptual tools, such as models of activity systems, concepts of contradiction and zones of proximal development to examine organizations as designed by human beings (Engeström, 2006; Engeström & Sannino, 2011).

CHAT has proven to be a useful theory, for example in the following areas of organization studies:

  • Strategic management
  • Organizational learning and competencies
  • Organizational change management

CHAT includes an interventionist methodology for development of organizations. The methodology has various applications, such as the Change Laboratory method and the Clinic of Activity. The use of CHAT in the study of organizations has, however, not yet deeply anchored in discussions within organization studies. The aim of this sub-theme is to bring together scholars using activity-theoretical frameworks and to develop and cultivate the use of CHAT in organization studies further.

In this sub-theme we identify a range of themes concerning activity theory and organizations. We welcome papers examining themes such as:

  • Agency and multivoicedness in organizations
  • Dialectical contradictions and their resolutions in organizations
  • Concept formation in patchwork-like organizations
  • Organizational boundary crossing and knotworking
  • Multiple tool constellations and their role in managing diversity in organizations

We also invite contributions that deal with other, related themes and appreciate papers establishing a dialogue between CHAT and other practice-based theories (Miettinen et al., 2009). We are also interested in theoretical papers taking a critical stance towards CHAT as a theory. We welcome innovative, theoretical and empirical work as well as both micro- and macro-level analysis. We especially appreciate empirical papers using CHAT as a methodological tool in the study of organizations.



Adler, Paul S. (2005): 'The evolving object of software development.' Organization, 12 (3), 401–436.
Blackler, Frank (2009): 'Cultural-historical activity theory and organization studies.' In: A. Sannino, H. Daniels & K.D. Gutiérrez (eds.): Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 19–39.
Engeström, Yrjö (2006): 'Activity theory and expansive design.' In: S. Bagnara & G. Crampton-Smith (eds.): Theories and Practice in Interaction Design. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 3–23.
Engeström, Yrjö & Annalisa Sannino (2011): 'Discursive manifestations of contradictions in organizational change efforts: a methodological framework.' Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24 (3), 368–387.
Miettinen, Reijo, Dalvir Samra-Fredericks & Dvora Yanow (2009): 'Re-turn to practice: an introductory essay.' Organization Studies, 30 (12), 1309–1327.


Yrjö Engeström is Professor of Adult Education and director of the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He is also Professor Emeritus of communication at the University of California, San Diego. He applies and develops cultural-historical activity theory as a framework for the study of transformations and learning processes in work activities and organizations. He is widely known for his theory of expansive learning and for the methodology of developmental work research. His current research focus is new forms of expansive learning in activity fields characterized by co-configuration and knotworking between producers and customers/users.
Zlatko Bodrožić is leader of a research group on organizational innovation at the Institute of Psychology, University of Belgrade, Serbia. He received his PhD at the University of Helsinki. His PhD thesis is titled "Post-Industrial Intervention: An Activity-Theoretical Expedition Tracing the Proximal Development of Forms of Conducting Interventions". His research interests include the use of cultural-historical activity theory as a framework for the study and support of organizational innovation. His current research focuses on applying and developing methods of intervention to support transformations and learning processes in work activities in Central and Eastern Europe.
Anu Kajamaa is a Post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Her doctoral dissertation is an activity-theoretical study of change management and long-term evaluation of organizational change efforts within formative interventions. Her PhD thesis is titled "Unraveling the Helix of Change: An activity-theoretical study of health care change efforts and their consequences". Anu Kajamaa has conducted extensive collaborative research and intervention projects in the Finnish health care system and produced several refereed publications in national and international journals.